This is a beautiful book. First published in 1927, it is the story of the first Catholic Bishop of New Mexico, Jean Marie Latour and his faithful friend Father Joseph Vaillant and their 40 years of service to God in the new world.
Set between 1851-1889, these two gentle, gracious and godly men from France choose to serve God and his people in the new world; before railroads and before roads when the new diocese Latour was given was unknown, mostly unchartered and sparely populated by Mexicans and native Indians. It seems based on fact also, although written as fiction.
It has a very similar feel to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, with a gentle relentlessness. It is a series of stories that link together to tell the story of a life of service, there is no one climax or plot overall, just the ebbs and flows of lives lived for God.
If you read it, I suggest you do what I did and keep some paper nearby to track characters and details; it makes it much easier to follow when the characters reappear at a later time. (This something I should definitely have done more accurately while attempting Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment recently – very hard to follow those Russian names!)
Obviously the theology in this book is Catholic and so there are elements which do not sit comfortably with me. However, her writing and descriptions of these men and their lives is so beautiful you are encouraged just in the reading of it.
“He said his prayers before he rolled out of his blankets, remembering Father Vaillant’s maxim that if you said your prayers first, you would find plenty of time for other things afterward” (p99)
“The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul’s salvation. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to free those souls in bondage. I confess I am covetous of that mission, I desire to be the man who restores these lost children to God. It will be the greatest happiness of my life.” (p165)
“The Vicar was one of the most truly spiritual men he had ever known, though he was so passionately attached to many of the things of this world. Fond as he was of good eating and drinking, he not only rigidly observed all the fasts of the Church, but he never complained about the hardness and scantiness of the fare on his long missionary journeys.” (p180)
“You have been a great harvester of souls, without pride and without shame… If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation” (p208)
After enjoying this one so much, I then turned to another Willa Cather novel, My Antonia. While interesting as a story of early rural life on the prairie, I didn't enjoy it as much.